Monthly Archives: October 2015

Analysis of Speaking the Language of Spiders

Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak  or Speaking the Language of Spiders is a complex, collaborative Indigenous project in new media that aims to tell stories about, according to the Artist Statement, “the fringes of urban street life” through Indigenous cultural paradigms and the medium of a nascent internet. As the Artist Statement elaborates, this is a project that aims to speak back to the invisibilization of lives (Indigenous life) under “the increasingly neoconservative climate of contemporary Canadian culture”. It is striking to me that this page is from 1996 – both because the technology of the site reflects this; it is rudimentary, simple in its layout, yet extremely complex and layered in its content. Moreover, the statement -almost 20 years old -speaks to a ‘an increasingly neoconservative’ Canadian culture, one that arguably has become more conservative in the last 20 years. The project is therefore political as it is an act, or an attempt, at visibilization and humanization  in the face of invisibilization and dehumanization.

Through several motifs of historical periods, the piece presents several poems/stories/texts of street life. Many of the pieces show a (by today’s standards) simple, unglamorous page with texts, that are sometimes accompanied by a narration of the pieces. The meaning of the poems/pieces, and other stories, are not not obviously clear, and to my mind, remain open to a variety of interpretations. Nevertheless, a dominant theme is the tension, as I read it,  between recuperating Indigenous epistemologies and the settler world’s ignorance of these. For example in “Mithoskumin – Break Up Season”, “natural law” and the wisdom of the snake is juxtaposed with the ignorance of a “city engineer”. The pieces also deal with some key political issues faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada; “Long Gone Walking Doll”, for example, in a subtle way alludes to the catastrophic and unjust crisis of missing Indigenous women.
The poems are layered and deep in their meaning. A key theme, as I see it, is nature and affect/emotions. The poems combine statements about nature, landscape, non-human animals and geography with certain emotions and experiences about urban street life. The poems demand the senses to feel; they do not have full ‘pictures’ or scenes per se, but they are full of descriptions of sounds, smells, anxieties, dreams, and much more.  There is therefore a powerful and evocative element of testimony to each poem. Not necessarily through visible images or the description of visible scenarios through text, but through a textured description of emotions, nature, feelings, the poems visibilize certain facts or experiences or situations of street life that are often actively invisibilized by the wider settler society. The work is also a careful and thoughtful condemnation of Canada’s racism towards Indigenous peoples; a recurring description is that of ‘brown skin’. In “Ice-boy”, one particular character is ‘confined’ to a space where “natural born color defines your place in the food chain”, undoubtedly referring to there is an unjust racial hierarchy in Canada which privileges some and marginalizes others.

References

“Long Gone Walking Doll”.  Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak (Speaking the Language of Spiders). N.D. 1996. Accessed Oct 25, 2015. http://www.spiderlanguage.net/walkingdoll.html

Maskegon-Iskwew, Ahasiw. “Artist Statement”. Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak (Speaking the Language of Spiders). 11 December 1996. Web. Accessed Oct 25 2015. http://www.spiderlanguage.net/ahasiw-statement.html 

“Mithoskumin – Break Up Season”. Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak (Speaking the Language of Spiders). N.D. 1996. Web. Accessed Oct 25, 2015. http://www.spiderlanguage.net/breakuptable.html

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The Medium Is The Message ?

Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message argues that ‘electronic circuity’ -or  a new age of mass communication technologies – has, is, and will, radically transform social and political relations in unpredictable and profound ways (McLuhan, 8). McLuhan’s seminal work contends that society is miserably unprepared for these seemingly rapid transformations.

McLuhan adopts an insightful definition of ‘technology’, arguing that every medium which produces meaning – such as alphabets or books – are an intense extension of human senses (McLuhan, 26). He parallels his predictions for the telecommunications revolution to the transformative consequences on human relations to the advent of the printing press; McLuhan argues that the mass production of the written word led to the establishment of fundamental institutions in Western society such as Armies and bureaucracies (McLuhan pp. 48-50). For McLuhan, media ‘works’ our senses to the extreme so that how we perceive the world through certain media becomes more significant than the content that is supposedly being perceived (McLuhan, 26). Furthermore, the basis of rationality in Western institutions  and ‘men’ are, according to him, liable to change as the ‘ratio’ of our senses to their engineered/technological amplification of changes (McLuhan, pp. 41, 45). McLuhan argues that the sensory amplification provided by new electronic technologies are bringing human consumption of information back to a kind of pre-alphabet acoustic ‘State of Nature’ in which time and space are no longer salient categories (McLuhan, 48).

In terms of transforming social relations, McLuhan argues that electronic technologies such as television create ‘masses’ or passive recipients of information, and which captivate publics in common experiences and creates a ‘Global Village’ (McLuhan pp. 22, 63, 68).

McLuhan’s warnings of these times of radical change in some ways seem to not be borne out by history, but, in my view, many also speak to current concerns over telecommunications in the 21st century. For example, he asks “When this circuit learns your job, what are you going to do?” perhaps alluding to the concern that increased technology and mechanization will displace human labour (McLuhan 20). It is curious that McLuhan did not predict the rise of the Public Relations Industry which help the powers that be (political parties, multinationals, the corporate media etc) to harness the power of telecommunications for their own interests. However, his remarks on  “tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance” and that “one big gossip column” of “computerized dossier banks” (McLuhan, 12) which threaten privacy rights could easily fit into contemporary debates over mass surveillance of the internet.

McLuhan seems to be claiming that the telecommunications revolution may lead to upheavals in the broader social order. Here is the principal concern with The Medium is The Message. It seems that McLuhan’s prescriptions for the potentially transformative (or disruptive) power of new communications technologies are akin to the early hopes that the Internet could be a force for radical democratization of information. I wonder if McLuhan’s predictions for radical transformations may be perhaps a bit exaggerated. Like the internet, various forms of telecommunications have become tools for social movements, multinational corporations, States, armies, and other social actors. However, it is not at all clear to me that the ideologies of these actors, their respective hegemonic or marginal influences, or the balance of power between them has been radically altered by the technologies themselves. McLuhan’s main point that our comprehension of these technologies’ revolutionary impacts on our perceptions are painfully limited still stands; the medium is no doubt the message. Inversely though, is the message always the medium? The main tenets of the global social, economic, and political order (and the social meanings which these are founded on and produce) of McLuhan’s time (forces such as settler colonialism, militarism, or market capitalism) still seem to be intact.

References

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Message. Corte Madera: Gingko Press, 2001. Print.

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